Almost all women will experience menopause symptoms, yet it remains a rare topic of discussion or shunned altogether at work.
This culture of silence is costly for the individual, business and economy. Evidence shows that employees disguise their symptoms out of fear and embarrassment, meaning they are unable to access the support they need. And in the worst case scenario, they end up leaving their jobs altogether: Bupa estimated that nearly 900,000 women in the UK left their employment because of menopause-related symptoms.
Hiding the menopause, and indeed any related matter at work, can be mentally exhausting and prevent us from being able to perform at our best. However, we are beginning to see people finally take note, thanks to high-profile campaigns, awareness months and inquiries into workplace practices like the one from the Commons’ Women and Equalities Select Committee. But what exactly is the role for leaders and managers in normalising this conversation at work?
Recognising the menopause as a workplace issue
The menopause can affect any staff at any time, including those who do not identify as women, for example, trans men and non-binary people. Those supporting others experiencing the transition, such as colleagues, relatives and partners, are also likely to be impacted.
But whilst research consistently highlights the negative and often debilitating effects the menopause can have at work, it can, like other health and wellbeing issues, be viewed as a personal matter which should be left at home.
Our experiences during the pandemic, however, have shown just how much our private and work lives can intertwine. Only in recent years have we seen mental health rise up businesses’ agendas, and it will only be a matter of time before the menopause is given the same treatment.
Educating yourself and the workforce
The menopause continues to be riddled with misconceptions and stereotypes around old age, high emotions and hot flashes, making it challenging for people to discuss it openly. They may, for instance, worry that they won’t be taken seriously or that their capability will be questioned, particularly as the transition can often coincide with the peak of women’s careers.
Overcoming the stigma has much to do with education. Many organisations have little understanding of the effects or do not fully appreciate the vast diversity of experiences. Individuals themselves might not realise that they are experiencing the menopause due to the wide-ranging symptoms – the GenM Invisibility Report uncovered 48 in total, but 51% of women could name just three.
Employers and managers are by no means expected to become medical experts, but taking the time to educate yourself and others can help address misinformation, while at the same time reduce any fear and mystery surrounding the subject.
Taking practical steps to move the needle
We cannot overturn negative workplace cultures and behaviours overnight, but the journey must start with leaders. Practical steps that might be taken include:
- creating a policy and integrating it into wider wellbeing strategies signals an organisation’s commitment to the issue, offers a place for reliable information on the topic and helps to set out a clear framework of the support on offer
- providing training to staff and line managers can give people the confidence to have these conversations and come together to agree individualised support
- setting up staff networks or focus groups can be an impactful way to engender change and provide a forum for individuals to share their stories. They offer another channel for employee voice and can provide valuable insights to leaders about any gaps in information and support.
The cultural stigma surrounding the menopause continues to hold many employees back and force them to suffer in silence. But this pattern can be broken. In recent years we have seen businesses take a holistic approach to employee wellbeing and inclusivity, with many being proactive in leading discussions in a way that historically was seemed off-limit.
If business ambitions include a strong emphasis on employee engagement, and empower everyone to bring their whole selves to work, then leaders need to create the time and space to encourage these important conversations.
Read Acas’s menopause guidance to find out more about talking with your staff, and comment below on the actions you’re taking to put an end to the menopause taboo.
Author: Simone Cheng – Senior Policy Adviser, Workplace Policy, ACAS